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In Memoriam: Karen Lord (1967-2001)
Counsel for Religious Freedom at the Helsinki Commission (1995-2001)
Monday, January 29, 2018

By Nathaniel Hurd,
Senior Policy Advisor

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” Gandalf says to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Helsinki Commission colleague Karen Lord relished the writings of Tolkien and beautifully lived the time given to her before dying of cancer at the age of 33. She served as Counsel for Religious Freedom at the Helsinki Commission from 1995 to 2001, and defended people of all faith even from her hospital bed.

On the 17th anniversary of her death, the Commission wants to give her family, friends, current and former Commissioners, and former colleagues the opportunity to commemorate her life and work in their words now. If you knew Karen, and want to send us a reflection to add to this tribute, please email info@csce.gov.

Family Life

Karen was born November 10, 1967, in Columbus, Ohio, to Dr. Raymond and Arija Lord, and was the eldest of three sisters; Ellen joined the family in 1968 and Diane in 1970. Devout Christians, the Lords moved to Haiti as missionaries when Karen was four years old, where Dr. Lord practiced medicine. They returned to the United States when she was six and settled in Portage, Michigan.

Karen Lord and her sisters as childrenEllen notes, “We looked a lot alike. I learned to ‘answer’ to my sisters’ names since people often mistook us for one of the other two ‘Lord sisters.’ The three of us were always very close growing up. I remember getting along quite well with both of my sisters, and have always considered them among my very best friends.”

Diane adds, “I was always proud to be known as the ‘Lord sisters.’”

Ellen continues, “Karen was the quintessential ‘big sister’—she seemed to always be able to get her way and talk everyone into the big ideas for lots of fun.

“She was the trailblazer for child-rearing for my parents and I think she made it easy for them, and definitely made it easy for her two younger sisters. She somehow was also able to talk my parents into and out of lots of things that she wanted to do (or not do), a skill which she continued to use throughout her life.”

“Growing up, Karen was a leader,” Diane agrees. “I remember in middle school on the bus she stood up to a boy who was bullying her and others. Unfortunately for him, he tried to hit her and broke his arm on her head!”

Dr. Lord recalls, “Karen was a happy girl and enjoyed school. She was consistent in getting her homework finished, usually ahead of time. In high school Karen was elected to the Student Council for three years. Karen was also on the school volleyball team.”

“When she was elected to be on the Homecoming Court her senior year, she called herself the ‘Queen of the Geeks,’ as she did not run with the popular crowd,” says Diane.

Diane also recalls the strong convictions, sense of wonder, and commitment to reason that would animate Karen’s relationships with her family, friends, and defense of religious freedom.

“Throughout her life, she always surrounded herself with wonderful, interesting, and dynamic people—I thought the world of all of her friends. Early on, she had strong convictions and she always asked questions. She had questions about how the Bible was interpreted and things our church taught. She engaged our youth group, our parents, and Ellen and I in conversations that encouraged us to think more deeply about our faith. She did not settle for ‘status quo’ if things did not seem right to her,” she says.

“I looked up to her as my oldest sister and remember gaining confidence from her example to speak and have my own opinions. Having a conversation with Karen meant you had to know what you were talking about because she always asked questions and probed for your perspective on things from politics to religion to relationships. She pushed me in a good way and made me feel as though what I thought really mattered.”

University Years

Karen entered Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois, in the fall of 1985 and graduated in 1989.

Karen Lord with her sistersEllen says, “I had the privilege of also attending there a year later. Karen made a point to make me feel welcome on campus. Her friends in high school and college were always my friends, too. In fact, we lived together in a house of eight women when I was a junior and she was a senior (ironically, we named it ‘The White House’) and had a wonderful time—we kept this particular group of friendships going even after college and have gotten together every few years to catch up and reminisce.”

“While in college, Karen thought deeply about what she was learning as a political science major. She wanted to do something with her life that made a difference. Karen made friends with many people, some of whom were very different from her. She always challenged her friends with good questions that would spark wonderful conversations. Karen made people think about why they thought what they thought, or why they did what they did. She was not afraid to talk to a friend when their life was inconsistent with their beliefs, and people appreciated that she cared enough to say something,” she adds.

One of these friends at Wheaton, Patrice (Trichian) Maljanian, became her best friend outside of her sisters and was later her housemate in Washington, D.C.

Patrice recollects, “My first memory of Karen was in either Old Testament or New Testament archaeology with Dr. [Alfred] Hoerth. She would share with the class the cookies her mother sent her and I thought that was so generous of her.

“When I served as the DJ for the [Wheaton College] radio station, WETN, she was the newscaster—basically she read the AP wire news during the news breaks. We would visit a little bit in between sessions, but we really connected over a meal early our senior year. As we were eating, we discovered all these, ‘me too’ things we shared in common. Our last and most significant desire was that we wanted to be in a Bible study and prayer group and so we decided to do this together. Once a week she came over to the house where I was living and we studied the names of God and prayed.”

When Karen applied to law schools, Patrice says, “Her biggest prayer request was for law school applications clarity about where God wanted her to attend. When Karen’s acceptance to American University came, she was surrounded by friends. We all jumped up and down in the Memorial Student Center and celebrated. Once the fray had subsided, she looked at me and asked, ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ Thus, our adventure began.”

Life in Washington

“Our first little apartment was in McLean Gardens on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., just down the street a bit from American University,” Patrice says. “We lived there for about two years and then moved to Lyon Village in Arlington because I was starting my master’s program at Marymount University.”

Ellen says, “When Karen moved to D.C. for law school and then settled there, it was always a treat to visit her. We always went and did interesting things and met her interesting and influential friends.

“She loved hiking and the outdoors, and loved the fact the D.C. was near to the mountains and the ocean. She loved to travel and enjoyed trips with her friends to other countries to explore different cultures and experiences. She and I took a few trips together before I got married.”

Patrice notes, “We lived together for six years. Our apartment quickly became a central location for dinner parties because we liked to entertain so much. On Sunday evenings we attended a prayer and praise night at Rich Vartain’s house on Capitol Hill. This quiet, yet beautiful time of worship was one of the reasons that Karen learned how to play the guitar. She also picked it up during law school finals because it was a very constructive diversion from the stress of exams.”

Ellen says, “She loved life. She loved Jesus. She loved her work. She saw God’s hand in all things, including His creation, and in art, literature and science. Her bookshelves held law books right next to books by great Christian authors (C.S. Lewis, Andrew Murray), and books such as Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.”

“Sunday afternoons we were either walking on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal or biking near Middleburg with friends,” Patrice remembers. “Karen rode her bike to school often. I bought a bike also so that we could ride together on the weekends. We loved the Rock Creek Parkway in the autumn because the golden leaves would float across our path.

Sunday nights were pretty sacred for us. After praise and prayer in the winter, we would come back to our D.C. apartment, sit by the fire, read, listen to Enya, and munch on popcorn. The popcorn is a Lord family tradition and we have adopted it in our household as well.”

Karen graduated from American University Washington College of Law in 1992 and was admitted to the Maryland state bar. She soon became a staff lawyer for Advocates International, a Christian legal organization founded by Sam Ericsson, JD, in 1991. The stated mission is “encouraging and enabling Advocates to meet locally, organize nationally, cooperate regionally and link globally to promote justice, rule of law, religious freedom, reconciliation and integrity…AI’s global network informally links…lawyers, law professors, jurists, law students and other law professionals and their colleagues in…cities, towns and law schools.”

In a 2001 tribute, Ericsson, who died in 2011, noted, “At the time, Advocates was too small to support even one full-time lawyer, so to make ends meet, Karen and I practiced immigration law.”

The Helsinki Commission

Karen worked at Advocates International for two years before becoming the Counsel for Freedom of Religion at the Helsinki Commission in 1995, where she remained until her death. At the Helsinki Commission, Karen dedicated herself to defending the religious freedom of persecuted people of all faiths. She was resolute in helping participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe keep their commitments to religious freedom and holding them accountable when they violated them.

As part of her studies at Wheaton, Dr. Lord notes, “During summers the political science department offered a study trip to several capitals of Europe, including Russia, where the group studied the different forms of government with interviews with officials in each site. This was a very impressive experience for Karen and a preparation experience the suited her for what she did at the Helsinki Commission.”

Diane recalls, “Karen felt passionate about her work at the Helsinki Commission and really felt a sense of urgency and a desire to be a voice for people whose voices were not heard. Just as she was standing up for kids being bullied in middle school, she was 100 percent invested in her work and felt called to stand up for those being persecuted. Karen often would ask us to pray for people in prison or for situations she was working on.”

Patrice says, “Karen would share prayer requests for these precious people when we met for Covenant Group, and I remember her extensive travels related to the Helsinki Commission. I distinctly remember her advocacy work in Germany for the Mormons. She spent time working with them and was just as vigorous in pursuing their religiously liberty as she would for Christians. Her work to defend freedom was very important to her. It is hard to explain, but sometimes she would actually feel the despair of those who were suffering—these were dark times for her that led her to wrestle with God in prayer.”

Ellen adds, “I remember Karen talking about her work when she was at the Helsinki Commission, and she would keep us informed about the latest things she was doing to advocate for people of faith all around the world.

“Karen was young and beautiful and blonde, and wickedly smart and articulate. “Somehow she was able to sit at the same table as stodgy older gentlemen in foreign countries, and get them to see her points and agree to champion religious liberty. It was similar to how she always seemed to talk us into her good ideas as children and young adults!”

Taken Young

Cancer was with Karen almost as long as she was with the Commission. “Her diagnosis of cancer was a complete shock at age 29,” says Ellen.

Yet despite her diagnosis and new reality, Patrice recalls, “Karen radiated joy in every area of her life—even in this professional side which, for her, was intertwined with her calling to serve Christ and His church. Even when she was sick and had to travel to places like Poland, she exuded a steadfastness and contentment in fulfilling her mission.”

“I picked her up from Dulles once with friends and, to be honest, I was worried about whether or not the trip was a good idea given her condition,” Patrice continues. “When we found her in baggage claim, she was glowing, tired but glowing, because she was doing what she loved. The Lord sustained her in amazing ways so that she could continue doing what He was calling her to do.

After every cycle of chemotherapy Karen would go on a victory tour. She loved celebrating life in any form, big or small. Sometimes it would be a piece of dark chocolate or a trip to Portugal. Sometimes she gave gifts because that was another tangible form of celebration to her. She was quite lavish that way because she lived a grateful life and felt that she had more than enough, so why not share the excess.”

Patrice adds, “Whether it was work or play, Karen pursued the ‘Good, the True and the Beautiful’ in everything. She was an avid reader and musician (beautiful voice, flute and guitar). Karen loved to hike and bike and camp. She and her family had a very deep and abiding love for each other—travelling, visiting in person or on the phone, vacationing together. I was privileged to be included on many of these wonderful experiences.”

Diane remembers, “Even after Karen was diagnosed and going through chemotherapy treatments, she would continue to travel and work with joy, knowing that this was her privilege and calling. I feel grateful that during the last years of her life we were able to travel together to the Netherlands as well as to Nova Scotia.

"One special memory I have is sitting together on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence watching eagles fly on the wind currents and feeling like time had stopped.

"Unfortunately, the cancer did not stop spreading. The following summer Karen was with my husband and me at his family lake place in New Jersey, and Karen, despite her compromised lung capacity due to the cancer, swam across the lake with me. It was quite an achievement for someone in her condition, but she was determined. Now, every year to honor Karen, my girls and I swim across the lake in New Jersey to honor their Aunt Karen.”

“She struggled through the hard questions with God while ill, but kept her faith. Even when she was ill, she still cared about her work, sometimes sending email and advocating for people of faith who were suffering across the world from her hospital bed,” observes Ellen.

Dr. Lord, an oncologist from 1974 until his retirement in 2014, describes how the cancer progressed.

“It was stage III at her first surgery. She had chemotherapy following her first surgery. There were a few months that she was ‘cancer free.’ However, there were clues that some of the blood tests were becoming abnormal. The tumor could be felt and Karen had to face that she would never have children.”

“At the surgery, it became clear she had Stage IV colon cancer,” he explains. “She required radiation and then more chemotherapy.

“At that time there was an immunologic study at Georgetown University. Karen asked me to help her in her decision as her father and as a medical oncologist. I flew to Washington so that I could visit the Georgetown doctor with her. It was learned that the immunological treatment required her to remain in Washington, D.C. She was scheduled to be in a meeting in Europe. So it was a question of staying in Washington for treatment versus attending the meeting in Europe.

“The way Karen was feeling she figured the trip would be her last trip. The immunological study was in an early phase and immunotherapy was not very developed at that point. We had a long talk after the doctor’s visit. We prayed for wisdom (James 1:5). Karen decided not to take the immunotherapy but to make the trip to Europe and go to the meetings.

“She did go and shortly after getting back she was getting short of breath and required oxygen. Karen started hospice and narcotics for the pain. Family members stayed with her in her apartment where she died about six weeks later. She was alert but very weak to the end.”

Ellen recalls, “Karen lived through the treatments believing she might be healed but came to the conclusion that that would not happen. She wrote on January 15, 2001, ‘I am ready to go to heaven and end this struggle, and yet my heart longs to be here to be part of the battle.’”

Diane shares, “I was in the room with her when she died. The night before when I was tucking her in, she said, ‘Goodbye’ to me, and when she woke up the next morning she asked me, ‘We’re still here?’ She voraciously ate a mango and then closed her eyes. I called to my dad to come in the room and minutes later he said to me that ‘this was it.’ We held her hands and sang the hymn ‘How Great Thou Art.’”

Dr. Lord finishes the memory. “On the fourth verse of that hymn, ‘When Christ shall come…and take me home…,’ Karen stopped breathing forever.”

Heartfelt Tributes

On this 17th anniversary of her death, current and former Commissioners and colleagues pay tribute to her.

“In her six years as a staffer on the Commission, Karen was an exemplary and trusted advisor on religious freedom. I relied on her advice and expertise, and she was a tireless and unyielding advocate for anyone persecuted for their beliefs. She performed her duties with grace, serenity, and nobility.

Even while Karen physically weak and suffering from the ravages of cancer, she still fought for the fundamental rights of others, traveling to conferences on religious freedom and international law in Bulgaria and Azerbaijan. Not once did I hear her complain of her condition. We on the Commission still revere her heroic example of service for the vulnerable, and the suffering she bore with stoutheartedness and peace right up until the end. She is greatly missed.”

Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman, Helsinki Commission

“Helsinki Commission staff members are invaluable to our country’s defense of basic human rights and freedoms. Karen dedicated her life to people who were being persecuted for their faith. I am deeply grateful for her dedication and for embodying the best of America. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends on this anniversary of her passing.”   

Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Senator, Helsinki Commission

“Karen Lord, in her short life, had an outsized impact on religious freedom around the world. She was instrumental in making the freedom to worship—one of the Four Freedoms identified by President Franklin Roosevelt as fundamental to democracy—a core component of our foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. As a staffer for the Helsinki Commission, which I chaired, Karen worked tirelessly to ensure that the right of every individual and group to worship freely would be enshrined in American foreign policy doctrine and one of the pillars of global human rights. In this endeavor, she drew heavily on her own deep faith, which called her to a mission of protecting the faithful, no matter their creed. Her loss was a painful one for the Commission, for our country, and for the cause of freedom around the world.”

Representative Steny Hoyer (MD-05), Democratic Whip and Helsinki Commissioner (1985-2002), including as Chairman/Co-Chairman (1985-1994)

“Karen was a thoughtful Christian with a deep faith and a passion for human rights and religious liberty. She cared deeply for the oppressed, a quality I witnessed when I spoke with her in her capacity with the Helsinki Commission. Karen was at Wheaton College with my daughter Virginia and her husband Derrick and they remember her infectious joy which won her many friends.”

Former Representative Frank Wolf (VA-10), Distinguished Senior Fellow of the 21st  Century Wilberforce Initiative, Helsinki Commissioner (1989-2006) and author of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998

“Karen exercised a high professional standard for accuracy in advocacy on behalf of faith communities and individuals who faced retribution for their religious practice. She took the time that is required to develop rapport with those who had experienced great loss and trauma. She went to great lengths (and traveled to remote places) to hear the stories directly from those who were under fire and, like a good journalist, would double-check the details. She faithfully ‘bore witness’ to their stories and investigated the legal and policy context – all for the sake of determining what and how to take the most effective action.

Her authentic and winsome spirit crossed many a cultural and language barrier in gathering the details and understanding the often tragic stories of people's lives. Karen’s critical thinking, combined with her legal prowess, led to sound policy recommendations, actionable responses by diplomats and Members of Congress, legislative provisions, and countless appeals made directly with Foreign Ministry officials, ambassadors, and government officials at the highest levels.

Karen was a patient teacher. When engaging the religious, she helped individuals understand their basic human rights under national laws and international agreements. She trained religious leaders how to record and report the abuses they endured and empowered them with practical tools they could employ to make their cases heard within their own countries and on the international stage.

When engaging Members of Congress and US Government officials, Karen respectfully educated her interlocutors about the rights of individual believers and religious communities. Her tenacity and engagement helped develop a cadre of advocates within our institutions, who in turn had an impact in their own spheres of influence. Throughout the hearings, the staff-level consultations and the extraordinary interactions with private sector advocacy groups that led to the crafting and eventual passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, Karen’s wise counsel and professional expertise had a profound influence on the final tone and provisions in the law.

Karen had an open door policy and invited engagement with the wide range of advocacy organizations and communities of all faiths. Her humility was welcoming even when the points of view being shared were in extreme conflict. She practiced and lived out in her daily life the ideals of ‘religious freedom for all’ and ‘respecting the inherent dignity of every human being.’ I can remember many a meeting with officials from countries with abusive track records when Karen's preparation for the Member or her colleagues meant a consistent and firm yet respectful message was delivered without ambiguity.”

Dorothy Taft, Executive Director of the Market Project and Chief of Staff/Deputy Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission (1995-2007)

“Karen Lord was a sweet, wonderful young person of deep faith, wholly committed to the idea and practice of human rights. Helping those suffering persecution for their religious beliefs was not just her profession, it was her mission. She combined the utmost seriousness of purpose with a lightness of manner, and an innate kindness.

Karen’s steadfast good cheer despite a grim diagnosis and poor prospects for recovery always amazed me. Only rarely did she even mention her illness; she carried on as if all was normal.

She used to wear red colored pants that I enjoyed teasing her about. And so convincing was she that when her health finally failed, it came as an awful surprise.

Her funeral service, with hundreds of mourners, demonstrated the love she earned among family, friends and colleagues. I remember her fondly, with sadness about her premature death. After so many years, it still seems hard to believe.”

Michael Ochs, Staff Advisor at the Helsinki Commission (1987-2012)

“Karen served as a stellar advocate on behalf of those persecuted and marginalized because of their religious beliefs. Informed by her own deeply held Christian faith, Karen was ever mindful of the inherent dignity of each person without distinction. She brought energy, passion and determination to her work at the Helsinki Commission to the end, striving for justice for those denied the fundamental right to profess and practice their religion.”

Ron McNamara, Coordinator of Student Leadership Development at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and Director of International Policy at the Helsinki Commission (1986-2011)

“Karen Lord is the reason I became involved in international religious freedom advocacy almost 20 years ago. As far as I’m aware, she was the first civil servant to work full time on international religious freedom issues for a U.S. government agency. She was a forerunner to all the various offices and positions that exist today, both within the US government and within the OSCE. While in law school, I was connected to her through mutual friends who knew I was attending the same D.C. law school she attended some years before. She encouraged me to apply for an internship at the Helsinki Commission to work with her, which was my first exposure to these issues. Almost 20 years later, I've committed my career to this work that she pioneered.”

Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia (State Department) and intern and then Counsel at the Helsinki Commission (2001-2007)

“Karen was one of the most appealing coworkers in my long experience. It was neigh impossible not to be optimistic about the future when Karen would be part of it. Her memorial service — a standing-room event in a large church — was the most emotional outpouring of affection for a person I have ever participated in. Just typing these words, I weep in her memory.”

Wayne Merry, Senior Fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council, and Senior State Department Advisor to the Helsinki Commission (1997-1998)

“I first encountered Karen during 1996 in small, informal planning meetings with a few of us advocates who were trying to develop a better strategy to counter religious persecution abroad. Her commitment to the cause of protecting all people of faith made her a force of nature. Though she was one of the youngest in the room, she helped shape what would two years later become the International Religious Freedom Act.”

Nina Shea, Director of the Center for Religious Freedom (Hudson Institute), former Commissioner of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (1999-2012) and former Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House (1996-2006)

“Karen had a clarity of vision that was unusual for her young age and was wise beyond her years. I remember watching her, thinking how true these two things were: That she was incredibly bold yet incredibly poised, and even while taking on large governments and power structures, she was unfazed.

In a town which rewards equivocation, she was straight, kind, but very straight talking. And she had a passion which made you want to lean in and do something even if you already had too many things to do already. She was wildly convincing.

I remember the time she came back from Tajikistan, giving me a rock from a decimated church. Because of that rock and Karen’s vivid stories of how that church had been bulldozed in front of the congregation, I was haunted for years afterward and still keep that rock on my shelf to this day.

She was a consummate advocate, perfectly fashioned to do that early hard work when hardly anyone cared. I loved her for it and so did many others, too. I’m grateful to have called her both my friend and my dear, dear comrade.”

Sharon Payt, Executive Director of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative and Legislative Assistant (1997-2002) for Senator Sam Brownback (KS), former Helsinki Commissioner (1999-2010; Chairman 2005-2006) and current U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom

“Karen had a great impact on me personally but also on lives and situations in the Central Asia region. She was well liked; her personal care and winning personality led to lasting relationships. She was well respected because of her professionalism and passion for people and human rights. It led to her becoming well connected to make a difference.”

Mats Tunehag, Editorial Board of Business as Mission and Chairman of the Central Asia Consultation in the 1990s

“Karen Lord was an exceptional voice for religious liberty and, for how she battled cancer and continued working to the end, I regard her as a saint. Some believe that the work I and other academics started doing with international institutions for religious liberty was some sort of conspiracy. The real story is different.

One very cold day I and Gordon Melton, then a Research Specialist in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, were walking in Washington DC and realized we were passing by the offices of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. We didn’t have an appointment but decided to enter and introduce ourselves (the fact that it was bloody cold outside was also a factor). We were received by young and shiny Karen Lord, who explained to us the many useful things academics can do to advocate for religious liberty at the OSCE, UN and other international institutions. Our cooperation was too short. 

I am very glad that in a government page there is such a fitting tribute to her.”

Massimo Introvigne, Former Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also Focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions (2011)

“Karen and worked together at Advocates International prior to her days at the CSCE and fondly remember her never say never attitude when it came to getting things done on behalf of those persecuted for their religious beliefs. She was a bright young lawyer and advocate and Advocates International is honored to consider her one of our own. She was taken too soon, but her impact is a lasting legacy. She is now with the great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on.”

Brent McBurney, President and CEO, Advocates International

“The first thing I think of when I think of Karen Lord is a song called ‘Testify to Love.’ ‘For as long as I shall live, I will testify to Love. I’ll be a witness in the silences when words are not enough. With every breath I take, I will give thanks to God above. For as long as I shall live, I will testify to Love.’ That was Karen.

I met her in the late 90s when a number of us from different organizations were working on religious freedom issues such as the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and the International Religious Freedom Act. Karen was an invaluable part of this , both because of her wisdom, but even more because of her indomitable spirit.

I thank God for Karen, her love for people and for freedom. I still mourn her death – getting weepy reading the Helsinki Commission’s beautiful tribute – but I know that she was welcomed by a great cloud of witnesses, martyrs and other faithful, and with them she now cheers us on.”

Faith McDonnell, Director, Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, The Institute on Religion and Democracy

Her friend Patrice concludes, “Karen lived and loved large. She loved Jesus. She loved people. She loved worship and prayer. She loved C.S. Lewis and Narnia, Frederick Buechner and J.R.R. Tolkien. She loved dark chocolate and salads and good conversation. We would spend hours talking at night on our beds. Sometimes she would play her guitar and we would sing in harmony. We could finish each other’s sentences, sit together in silence, blast our music and dance—we were having the time of our lives.”

“Karen was God’s gift to me in so many ways. She taught me how to love God’s creation and camp, hike and breathe in His beauty. Instead of staying in the cabins during our Front Royal church retreats, we would stay in a tent in the meadow and brag to everyone about how well we slept! She loved to spend time alone with God.”

“One of my favorite memories of her is seeing her sit in the blue papasan chair in our ‘spare room’ in our Arlington apartment looking out at the hill of ivy. I still have that chair and that cushion. It is Auntie Karen’s chair, I tell my kids, so take care of it.

“I talk about Auntie Karen to my kids all the time because they need to know how she, as God’s instrument, shaped me. There is a void in this life because she is not here with us, but Heaven is richer for it.”

In her final reflection, Ellen says “Karen loved being an aunt to my children, although she passed away when my oldest was two and my middle child was nine months old. I miss her every day. I have multiple items around my house that she had brought home on her travels to other countries which I look at daily and think of the privilege I had being her sister.”

Diane closes, “Karen’s life, although short, was an inspiration to me – and continues to be – and I feel very grateful that she was my sister.”

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: MOSQUE AND STATE IN CENTRAL ASIA Can Religious Freedom Coexist with Government Regulation of Islam? Monday, December 17, 2018 3:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission From 2016 to early 2018, the U.S. government designated three of Central Asia’s five nations— Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as countries of particular concern (CPC) for engaging in or tolerating “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” like torture, abduction, and clandestine or prolonged detention without charges. In these countries, people of all faiths, or no faith at all, have endured onerous government-mandated harassment, fines, and imprisonment for even minor breaches of state regulations of religious belief and practice. To ensure regime stability and counter violent extremism, the governments of some Central Asian Muslim-majority countries impose strict and invasive violations of religious liberty on adherents of the Islamic faith. Islamic religious institutions and leaders are fully incorporated into the state bureaucracy. Exploring the faith outside the bounds of “official Islam” is forbidden and illegal. The Helsinki Commission will convene an expert panel of regional and Islamic scholars to explain the different approaches to state regulation of Islam in Central Asia and the consequences of these policies for religious freedom, radicalization, and long-term political stability and social development. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor, Political Science, and Russian and Eurasian Studies, University of Minnesota Edward Lemon, DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security Emil Nasrutdinov, Associate Professor of Anthropology, American University of Central Asia Peter Mandaville, Professor of International Affairs, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University On December 11, 2018, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo re-designated Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as CPCs. He upgraded Uzbekistan to the Special Watch List—it had been previously designated as a CPC—based on recent progress. In June 2018, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) urged Secretary of State Pompeo to consider inviting Uzbekistan to the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom because of significant steps taken by President Mirziyoyev to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with its international commitments to respect religious freedom. Later that month, he introduced the bipartisan Senate Resolution 539 calling on President Trump to combat religious freedom violations in Eurasia with a mix of CPC and Special Watch List designations, individual and broader sanctions, and development of a strategy specifically for the region. In early July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed Chairman Wicker’s amendments recognizing the ongoing reforms of the government of Uzbekistan. A few weeks later Chairman Wicker met with Uzbekistan’s delegation to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom—the only CPC invited—and highlighted the opportunity for Uzbekistan to be a model to other countries if the government follows through with essential reforms

  • Religious Freedom in Eurasia

      In his first Congressional hearing since his confirmation, Ambassador Brownback testified on religious freedom in participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation. OSCE commitments on human rights and freedoms are the strongest, most comprehensive of any security organization in the world. Yet some of its participating States chronically have been among the worst violators of religious freedom–often in the name of countering terrorism or extremism–and designated by the United States as Countries of Particular Concern. The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, Public Law 114-281, requires the President to release Country of Particular Concern designations–required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998–no later than 90 days after releasing the annual International Religious Freedom Report. The State Department issued the latest report on the day of the hearing. The Helsinki Commission explored the designations, as well as religious freedom in Western Europe, including potentially restrictive amendments to the religion law in Bulgaria; restrictions on religious animal slaughter; restrictions on construction of houses of worship; and conscience rights. Questions for the Record Submitted to Ambassador Samuel D. Brownback by Chairman Roger Wicker  

  • December 1, 1991

    By Alexa Zouboukos, Intern On December 1, 1991, 84 percent of eligible voters in Ukraine exercised their democratic rights in a referendum on independence and the election of their president, peacefully transferring power after the long struggle of the Cold War. If the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled a symbolic end to the war, then Ukraine partaking in the democratic process was a concrete outcome. Three U.S. Helsinki Commission staffers sent to monitor the elections—Orest Deychakiwsky, Michael Ochs, and Heather Hurlburt—reported on the implementation of regulations that we recognize in today’s U.S. elections. Some of these regulations included the collection of a certain number of signatures for a candidate to be placed on the ballot, campaign finance laws, and the methodology for marking and counting ballots. Despite many accounts of a free and fair election, however, there were also indicators of information suppression. Helsinki Commission staff noted that there were reports of pro-independence literature being withheld from Crimea and Mykolaiv. Limits to the free flow of information were not the only threat Ukrainians faced, but also “dark warnings by Mikhail Gorbachev, by the central Soviet media and, to some extent, Russian media about the difficulties and dangers Ukrainian independence would pose to Ukrainians themselves, to their neighbors and to international stability.” These threats to the will of Ukrainian people did not dampen their spirits; in fact, according to the report, “many Ukrainians later told Helsinki Commission staff that such attempts to intimidate them only made them more determined to see their cause through to the end.” Ukrainian citizens demonstrated this determination through a landslide referendum. Three-quarters of participants voted in favor of independence. Helsinki Commission staff also observed a distinct feeling of festivity at polling stations, reinforced by the testimonies of Ukrainians previously imprisoned in Siberia who said that this day was the realization of a long-held dream of independence from the Soviet Union. Ukrainians were aware that there would be greater struggles ahead, but also recognized that these could be opportunities to exercise their new sovereignty. December 1, 1991 did not mark the end of Ukraine’s conflicts with Russia, but it did finally allow Ukrainians to exercise rights that were long suppressed under the Soviet yoke.

  • First Person: Faces of Ukraine

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor In the ongoing war in Donbas, now entering its fifth year, most of the people on the front lines—in some cases, literally—of Ukraine’s struggle for democracy and sovereignty go unnoticed. Minorities like Roma also often have special challenges that must be comprehensively addressed in Ukraine as well as Europe more broadly.  To meet some of these Ukrainians and hear their stories firsthand, I, along with my colleagues Mark Toner and Alex Tiersky and Dr. Cory Welt of the Congressional Research Service, traveled to Ukraine to gain a more nuanced understanding of war, politics, and everyday life in Ukraine. We were up before dawn for our first working day in Ukraine to make our way from the Kiev train station to Kramatorsk, a small industrial city in Donetsk Oblast that was briefly occupied by Russian-led forces in the early days of Russia’s war against Ukraine.  Kramatorsk and its surrounding regions are home to many internally displaced persons (IDPs) forced out of their homes by frequent shelling along the contact line separating Ukrainian government-controlled areas and Russian-occupied territories.  Our first meeting that day vividly illustrated the destruction this senseless war has unleashed on the lives of average Ukrainians.  Together with representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which receives generous support from the U.S. Government, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, we heard stories of struggle, tragedy, and resilience from some recipients of this aid. One man told us that the cash-based assistance he received helped him make vital repairs to his car and house and buy clothing and food for his six children.  Two sisters expressed their gratitude for the small business grant they received, which allowed them to start anew when they realized they could not return to their home in Horlivka.  A tearful single mother recounted her struggle to subsist after her house was destroyed.  Another woman described the terrible nights spent in her basement seeking shelter from shelling.  All of them talked about the difficulties they faced—from long lines in harsh weather conditions to landmines and shelling—when trying to visit their families and homes on the other side of the contact line.  Despite these traumatic and life-altering circumstances, the support of the United States and international and local religious programs have enabled these IDPs to start a new life in another part of Ukraine. Our meeting with IDPs in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, along with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch We learned more about the conditions of IDPs in Kramatorsk from city representatives.  The group expressed their concerns about the high rent and limited housing opportunities in Kramatorsk that make it hard for IDPs to live there permanently.  Of the 70,000 IDPs registered in Kramatorsk (a city of originally 120,000), only 50 percent live in the city. The other half are registered for benefits but continue to live in their homes along the line of contact or in the occupied zones. Those who live on the Russian-controlled side of the contact line must endure the arduous task of monthly travel to the other side to collect their benefits, including pensions. Crossing the line has become so dangerous and stressful that some of the IDPs we met earlier said that, although they had friends and family on the other side of the contact line, they have stopped trying to cross it. We were as impressed by the resiliency of these displaced people and the NGOs that have sprung up to help them with their legal and humanitarian needs as we were struck by the bleak outlook so many of them have for a peaceful, prosperous future. I also visited a small town about two hours from Kyiv with a sizeable Romani population to hear from the people themselves what it is like to live as a minority group in rural Ukraine.  The brisk weather and overcast sky mirrored the gloominess and poverty of the town compared to Kyiv.  Since we arrived early, a Romani woman invited us into the small house where she lived with her partner and nine children.  She explained that she was having difficulty securing government benefits for her children, who were already living in poverty.  She watched over the house and children, and her partner had a chronic disease which rendered him unable to work, so they survived thanks to the charity of several religious organizations and the government payments they received.  I heard similar stories about troubled relations with the regional and national governments from other members of the Roma community.  We met in the town library, a small, worn-down Soviet relic with no indoor plumbing that also serves as a local government office.  A portrait of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian trident adorned the wall behind the desk in the room.  A group of local Roma, some with small children, came in and sat down, speaking among themselves in Russian and Ukrainian.  A colleague from the U.S. Embassy and I introduced ourselves and began to ask questions about life for Roma in the town.  Everyone in the room insisted that they had no problems with their non-Romani neighbors, but noted that unemployment was a persistent problem; most adults in the group were illiterate or had only an elementary-level education.  Women generally tended to the children and the home, and the men foraged for mushrooms and berries or picked through trash for scrap metal and empty bottles.  They said that all their school-age children, in spite of their difficult circumstances, were enrolled in the local school.  Some mothers complained of discriminatory treatment toward Roma children in schools but emphasized that this meant slightly preferential treatment for non-Roma children rather than outright abuse.  They vehemently denied experiencing any incidents of nationalist violence in their isolated village, like those that have occurred in and around larger cities like Lviv and Kyiv. One of the Romani women that we met with invited us into her home, which she shares with her partner and nine children The group became visibly agitated when discussing their relationship with the government and their attempts to receive social services.  To receive these services, they need to file a declaration of income; since their incomes are typically irregular, government officials will write in a higher income than exists in reality, affecting their social payments.  Those who are illiterate are easily taken advantage of by regional officials (“they laugh at us,” one woman said), and often must sign documents they don’t understand.  Demands of some government officials for bribes also impede equitable access to social services for those who cannot afford to pay, one person mentioned.  There were mixed responses about healthcare access.  One man said that he had been denied hospitalization three times, but most others claimed they had no problems, and all the women who were mothers had given birth in the nearest hospital.  The village library where we met with members of the Romani community This group of Roma has a great advocate in the form of Valentyna Zolotarenko, who accompanied us on our visit.  She lives in Kyiv and serves as a liaison between Roma communities and the national government, representing their interests with care, understanding, and firmness.  Local government has also done a good job of ensuring that members of the Romani community have citizenship papers and proper documentation.  A local official who is particularly invested in the community told us upon departing of her personal concern for Roma in her town.  “I imagine how it would be if I were the one being treated this way,” she told us in Russian.  “I cannot simply do nothing—these people are people just like you and me.” Throughout our trip, we met numerous such people who are invested in the fight for Ukraine’s future, whether through civic activism, politics, or business.  We saw victims of a cruel and unnecessary conflict instigated and perpetuated by Russia, but we also saw courage, resilience, and a sense among civil society that there could be no turning back on human rights and other reforms.  It was an honor to witness the good work that Ukrainian NGOs, many supported with U.S. assistance, are doing to make a clear difference in the lives of others.

  • Belarus Reality Check

    On October 22, 2018, over 50 international analysts, practitioners, diplomats and policymakers gathered in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the eighth Belarus Reality Check, a full-day review of the Belarusian economy, political and human rights developments, and changes in the regional security situation in and around Belarus. Former Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland joined representatives of the IMF, the World Bank, Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry, the EU Ambassador to Belarus, and dozens of analysts from Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, and other European nations for the event. Political Developments in Belarus During the first panel, presenters noted that sovereignty and stability remain top priorities for the Government of Belarus. Despite a great deal of work by the OSCE’s Office of Democracy Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in recent years, its recommendations to improve Belarusian elections have still not been implemented, and panelists were skeptical that any action would be taken before parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2020.  Although the Belarusian political opposition remains divided and marginalized, several panelists believed that support for the opposition is growing.  Unfortunately, there was consensus that Russian malign influence in Belarus is also growing, primarily via Russian exploitation of social media platforms in Belarus. The Belarusian Economy The second panel featured four presentations that examined challenges facing the Belarusian economy and analyzed the country’s agonizing choice between beginning long-overdue reforms or remaining dependent on Russian subsidies for oil and gas to shore up failing state-owned enterprises (SOEs).  Panelists pointed out that— due largely to those subsidies—the Belarusian economy has fared better than many of its neighbors for years, and that Belarusians enjoy a better standard of living than a number of their Eastern European counterparts.  Polling by the IPM Research Center has shown that a top priority for Belarusians, and thus for the Government of Belarus, is low inflation.  According to the same study, most Belarusians are satisfied with the current state of affairs. Should the subsidies end, Belarus could face a true crisis.  Belarusian Foreign Policy The final panel discussed Belarusian relations with its neighbors—strangely including China, but omitting the U.S.  Positive trend lines were noted for Belarusian relations with all major countries except Russia, and international organizations have demonstrated increased interest in Belarus. In particular, OSCE Secretary General Greminger visited Belarus for a third time in 2018.  Anaïs Marin of France, recently appointed as UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, remarked that progress had been made by Belarus on its 2016 National Action Plan on Human Rights, but described continuing Belarusian support of the death penalty as something that required continued scrutiny by the international community.  One analyst took EU policy to task for “aiming at progress, not results.”  Russian policy in Belarus, he claimed, is intended to produce results—namely, to keep Belarus under control and on a short leash.  Another panelist described the conundrum of trying to contain Russian influence in Belarus: “We can’t get rid of Russian influence (money) in Latvia or London; how can we expect to get them out of Belarus?” In a concluding question and answer session, Rauland—who served as charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk from June 2014 through July 2016—asked the panel to comment on the diverging EU and U.S. strategies on Belarus, noting that the EU had decided to lift sanctions on Belarus completely in 2016, while the U.S. had merely suspended them while awaiting further improvements in human rights.  The panelist who responded to that question described EU policy as a mistake, noting that political prisoners had been released (the event which triggered sanctions relief by the EU), but that their civil rights had not been restored, something he felt should have been a condition for the EU completely lifting sanctions. Answers to a question earlier in the day, asking whether panelists were optimistic about the future for Belarus, may have captured the range of views of the participants best of all.  “Yes,” replied the first to answer.  “I’m ‘realistic’ about progress,” replied the next panelist.  “And I’m an optimistic realist,” concluded the third. The event was organized by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre with the support of USAID, Pact and Forum Syd, together with programmatic contributions from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

  • Who's Afraid of Civil Society?

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law “How will you mark the anniversary?” That’s what Timothy Garton Ash asked dissident playwright Vaclav Havel 30 years ago, prior to the 70th anniversary of the Czechoslovak state. The answer? A symposium on the incidence of the number “eight” in Czechoslovak history: 1918 (the creation of the modern Czechoslovak state), 1938 (Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czech lands), 1948 (the Communist takeover), 1968 (the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring) . . . and 1988. As a junior Helsinki Commission staffer, I attended that symposium. It was my first solo trip for the Commission. At the time, the 35 signatories of the Helsinki Final Act were meeting in Vienna to review the implementation of the Final Act, negotiate new commitments, and schedule future meetings. Czechoslovakia—the Czechoslovak Socialist Federal Republic, to be more precise—had proposed holding a future meeting in Prague as part of the Helsinki process work on economic cooperation. And why not? Budapest, the capital of another one-party communist state, had managed to become the host for a cultural forum in 1985. In Vienna, the Soviet delegation had boldly proposed holding a follow-up meeting on human rights in Moscow. However, Czechoslovakia—unlike Hungary, Poland or even the Soviet Union under Gorbachev—remained a firmly hardline communist regime through the 1980s, with significant restrictions on civil society.  According to the U.S. Department of State at the time, freedom of assembly was severely restricted. Efforts to hold independently organized meetings or demonstrations systematically resulted in arrests, criminal prosecutions, assaults on persons attempting to hold such events, sometimes using water cannon, dogs, tear gas and truncheons.  Nevertheless, as the Prague symposium approached, the United States had still not taken a position in Vienna on the Czechoslovak proposal. Earlier in the year, authorities in Czechoslovakia disrupted efforts by independent peace activists to hold a meeting in Prague by refusing to allow foreigners to enter the country to participate. If Czechoslovakia was unwilling to allow openness and access at such meetings, was it fit to serve as the host of a Helsinki process follow-up meeting? The November meeting would be kind of a test. My handler from the U.S. Embassy welcomed to my visit. The United States had recently declared a Czechoslovak diplomat in Washington persona non grata for actions inconsistent with his diplomatic status, a euphemism for spying. The U.S. Embassy, then led by Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, assumed it was only a matter of time before the Czechoslovak regime would kick an American out of Prague in retaliation. The embassy thought it might avoid that outcome if it cut off ties with dissidents. My visit gave the embassy’s political officer an opportunity to resume those ties.  Still, he warned me, I might be the convenient target of retaliation. Czechoslovakian authorities allowed foreign participants to attend the symposium, but by the time my plane landed, the principal organizers of the event, including Vaclav Havel, had been arrested. I was deposited at the Hotel Jalta, along with  others who had come from abroad to participate. The small black and white television in my room had a neatly typed card in front of it that said in English, “Do not attempt to change the station.” I spun the dial at every opportunity.  This is where I first met Max van der Stoel, the former Dutch Foreign Minister and man of inestimable integrity who later became the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.  Eventually, Vaclav Havel was released, and I met with him and other dissidents before heading to a “parallel” symposium on “8s” organized by exiles in Vienna. In Vienna, I also reported to the head of the U.S. delegation to the Vienna Follow-up Meeting, Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, about the events in Prague. On November 15, 1988, Ambassador Zimmerman announced the U.S. position on the Czechoslovak bid to host a follow-up meeting, noting that the lack of openness and access made U.S. endorsement impossible: . . . [T]he pattern of repression in Czechoslovakia, together with the persistent efforts of the Czechoslovak delegation to secure approval for Prague as host of an economic follow-up, lead me to state for the record the U.S. position on the candidacy of Czechoslovakia . . .  [A] prospective host should reflect commitment to openness and access, for its visitors and for its own citizens, that has been so well exemplified by the government of Austria at the Vienna meeting. By this simple and reasonable standard, the government of Czechoslovakia fails – and fails abysmally. For that reason, the United States will not join any proposal that any post-Vienna meeting be held in Czechoslovakia. That decision is irrevocable; it will not be subject to review or change during the life of the Vienna meeting. In June 1989, an American diplomat – my control officer for the November symposium – was declared persona non grata by the Czechoslovak authorities, in retaliation for the U.S. expulsion of another Czechoslovak diplomat from Washington, and expelled one-month short of the end of his three-year tour. In November 1989, the communist police violently broke up a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration and brutally beat many student participants. They also planted a false story in the opposition that a student demonstrator had been beaten to death. The secret police thought they would be able to reveal that the opposition report of a fatality was false and thereby discredit the growing dissident movement. Their plan backfired. Instead, as journalist Mary Battiata wrote, “a half-baked secret police plan to discredit a couple of dissidents apparently boomeranged and turned a sputtering student protest into a national rebellion.” The United States continues to advocate for openness and access for civil society at meetings organized in the Helsinki process.  Hopefully, it will continue to do so with the same firmness and determination it did 30 years ago.

  • Beyond Tolerance

    George Washington penned a letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, underscoring that “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington envisioned an America where religious pluralism was not just present but actively protected. This briefing examined the role of faith in the public square as a good in and of itself and as a public good. Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religions Discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, noted a duality in the spirit of the American Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the 1777 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: neither should someone be forced to support a certain faith nor should he be made to suffer on account of his faith. Treene reemphasized that natural law solidifies our inalienable right to pursue religion and that the founding fathers believed that pluralism must not exclude certain religions. Treene said the Department of Justice strives to defend sincere and “deeply held” religious beliefs while permitting faith to flourish as much as possible without government intervention. Beyond the external ability to worship, Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom and Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, underscored faith’s meaningful ability to address metaphysical and existential questions which have been answered by a myriad of faith traditions. Pluralism means that differing ethical and moral views are to be protected insofar as they are non-violent. Fundamentally, pluralism demands freedom of religion, and Father Deacon Bennett argued that a pluralistic society best promotes human flourishing. Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator in the Dutch Parliament and Professor of Religion, Law and Society at Radboud University, noted that respect and tolerance, which are often invoked in the context of pluralism, are not clearly defined. To achieve these coexistent ends, she borrowed terms from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to argue that government authorities may employ “programmatic secularism,” which deters religious activity, or “procedural secularism,” which welcomes religious activity. A contextual understanding of the word “secular” matters especially to current debates over the intersection between values and controversial political subjects like immigration, integration, foreign influencing, and radicalization, etc. Democratic governments struggle to define secularism, and they are further beset by broader definitions from international bodies like the European Court of Human Rights which seeks to protect religious liberties individually yet universally.   Equal treatment among varying cases has been a challenge, as Dr. van Bijsterveld noted that “equal treatment applies in equal circumstances [but] equal treatment…is not necessarily identical treatment.” While the legal uncertainty resulting from diverse religious practice does pose a challenge to legal institutions, overreliance on secularism in the name of fairness could also threaten equal treatment of religious activities. Ideally, secularism is a neutral ideology, but in Canada, Father Deacon Bennett expressed concern over a “prescribed diversity” and understanding of secularism which might fetter religious freedom. Under “prescribed diversity,” official support for any one ideology risks belittling or demonizing other forms of religious expression under what Father Deacon Bennett termed “illiberal totalitarianism in the public square.” A balance must be maintained so that faith is not reduced to an entirely private affair, compelling faith to vacate the public square. Treene commented on this difficult tension through the example of French laïcité, government-enforced secularism in the public square. The French government has not been a neutral referee in the fight between secularism and religious expression, and controversial decisions like the French headscarf ban have endeavored to solidify a secular foundation in the public square, arguably at the expense of religious expression. The degrees to which religion should counteract secularism or vice versa will continue to be debated, but the panelists all concurred that it is the role of society to respect inherent human dignity and to respect others’ rights to freedom of conscience, expression and association. As Dr. van Bijsterveld noted, this also includes mutual understanding between public authorities and religious communities. The implication of such cooperation is especially significant in a politically polarized society because greater amounts of religious freedom correlates with decreased levels of social conflict, according to recent scholarship at the Religious Freedom Research Project. Following George Washington’s encouragement of diverse religious practice in 1790’s America, we too should respect faith’s essential place in the public square in 2018, panelists argued.

  • Faith in the Public Square to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: BEYOND TOLERANCE Faith in the Public Square Monday, October 29, 2018 2:30 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 188 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and laws of the United States, Canada, and many western European countries. As participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they have repeatedly affirmed that religious freedom is a fundamental freedom and committed to respecting it. But over the past few decades, there have been shifts to language and attitudes of “tolerance” regarding faith in the public square. This briefing will examine faith in the public square as a good in and of itself, a social good, and essential for modern democracy. Panelists will discuss the interplay between public expressions of faith and law, policy, culture, society, and human flourishing in the United States, Canada, and Europe. They will also discuss philosophy underpinning original and shifting understandings of faith in the public square. The following panelists will offer brief remarks, followed by questions: Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016); current Director, Cardus Religious Freedom Institute Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator, Dutch Parliament, and Professor of Religion, Law and Society, Radboud University

  • First Person: Encountering Auschwitz

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor During the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, I joined 21 other members of the U.S. delegation on my first visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, the site of the former concentration and death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The mass murder of Jews, Poles, Romani people, Soviet political prisoners, and other groups by the Nazi state is almost too monstrous for comprehension, especially from a distance. Fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain, and though many of their memories have been preserved, soon there will be no witnesses to speak to the horrors of the past. What remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau, perhaps the most notorious death camp, is a testament to the millions of people slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Auschwitz I, though significantly smaller than Birkenau, is largely intact, and houses powerful exhibitions giving a deeply personal glimpse into a tragedy that often seems too large to grasp. For me, the faceless masses of black-and-white history book photos were brought into sharp relief through collections of objects found after Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.  Enormous piles of eyeglasses, human hair shaved from the bodies of women dragged from the gas chambers, and children’s shoes were on display as a reminder of the simple trappings of humanity denied to the victims. We laid a wreath at the Wall of Death, an execution site, and finished the tour with a silent walkthrough of a gas chamber, illuminated by the holes in the ceiling from which Zyklon-B pellets rained down on the trapped prisoners. At Birkenau, we walked along the original train tracks where wagonloads of people were selected to either die in the gas chambers or labor in terrible conditions in which disease, starvation, and exposure meant that the average prisoner perished mere months after arrival.  The remains of the killing factory, hastily destroyed upon the approach of the Soviets, are a haunting illustration of the scale of Nazi atrocities. The final death toll of Auschwitz is estimated at 1.3 million, with Jews accounting for about 90 percent of the murdered.  One in six Jews killed during the Holocaust were killed at Auschwitz.  The evils of anti-Semitism, racism, and persecution of minority groups still exist today. At the Birkenau memorial to the victims, Ambassador Brownback reminded us that the United States must continue to defend human rights around the world. Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Kyle Parker (left) and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (right) lay a wreath at Auschwitz at the Death Wall where those who attempted to escape were shot. As we prepared to depart, the clouds lifted over Birkenau, revealing a sunny sky, in stark contrast with the heavy grief of the morning.  Each of us processed the visit differently, but all experienced a renewed sense of the importance of our mission upon returning to the HDIM.

  • The Human Dimension is a Parliamentary Priority

    Each September, the OSCE focuses considerable attention on its body of commitments in the human dimension, ranging from human rights and fundamental freedoms, to democratic norms and the rule of law, to tolerance in society and other humanitarian concerns. For two weeks, the participating States and interested non-governmental organizations gather in Warsaw, Poland, to review implementation of OSCE commitments in each of these areas.  This Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) is organized under the auspices of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Other OSCE institutions, like the High Commissioner for National Minorities and the Representative on the Freedom of the Media, also participate in the exchange of views. Traditionally, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) is also represented at the meeting, and its presence this year was particularly strong. About the OSCE PA The OSCE PA is one of the original institutions of the OSCE and consists of 323 parliamentarians who gather three times a year, including at an annual session each summer where resolutions are adopted. Today’s high-profile OSCE work on human trafficking, anti-Semitism, and media freedom began years ago with initiatives undertaken by the assembly and transferred at the urging of parliamentarians to national governments for concrete follow-up activity. Decision-making in the OSCE PA is usually based on a majority vote, which contrasts with the consensus needed among government representatives in OSCE diplomacy. This allows the Assembly to address issues, particularly in the human dimension, in a way that reflects the overwhelming opinion of the participating States but would be unlikely to succeed in other OSCE bodies, where representatives of offending countries can block action.  For example, in the past five annual sessions the OSCE PA has adopted resolutions condemning Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles in it aggression against Ukraine, including violations in the human dimension.  At the 2018 annual session in Berlin last July, Russian parliamentarians unsuccessfully opposed consideration and adoption of a text on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea, and on the human rights situation in Russia itself. The OSCE PA also criticizes other countries’ record in the human dimension records—including actions of the United States—but the assembly’s criticism is generally commensurate with the severity of perceived violations. The OSCE PA defends ODIHR in its work facilitating implementation of commitments where needed, and civil society in its advocacy of human rights. At the 2018 annual session, parliamentarians condemned the ongoing efforts of Turkey and some other countries to restrict non-governmental voices at the HDIM and other human dimension events, or to dilute them with non-governmental organizations formed at the behest of some of the more repressive regimes in the OSCE region.  In Berlin, the OSCE PA called “on all OSCE participating States to welcome NGO participation in OSCE events, and to reject all efforts to restrict participation in OSCE human dimension events so long as these groups do not resort to or condone violence or terrorism, to ensure the broadest possible contribution from NGOs to the OSCE’s work and a full and unrestricted exchange of information and opinions.” OSCE PA Participation in HDIM 2018 OSCE PA President George Tsereteli addresses the 2018 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw. In 2018, five OSCE PA officers—all elected members of national parliaments—spoke at the HDIM.  OSCE PA President George Tsereteli of Georgia addressed the gathering’s opening session, observing that while the human dimension is also known as the “third dimension” of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security, it “should always be our first priority.” “When we put our OSCE hats on, our primary goal is to better the lives of the more than one billion people in the OSCE area,” said President Tsereteli. “Our duty is to respond to their desire to live in a free society, where democratic debate is encouraged and not stifled, where journalists are respected and not jailed or killed, where a simple citizen can trust that his or her voice counts and is not discarded.” Two of the OSCE’s nine Vice Presidents—Isabel Santos of Portugal and Kari Henriksen of Norway—also attended. Santos focused on the human rights of migrants, and Henriksen on promoting opportunities for women and children that will protect them from human trafficking. Two of the three officers of the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions were also in Warsaw. Committee chair Margareta Kiener Nellen of Switzerland addressed hate crimes and hate speech, including ways to combat them, while committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni of Cyprus focused on challenges to freedom of the media, ranging from rhetorical attacks to violence and incarceration of journalists. OSCE PA human rights committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni delivers remarks at the freedom of the media session at the 2018 HDIM in Warsaw. Other Human Dimension Activities Throughout the year, the OSCE PA deploys short-term election observation missions and represents the OSCE as a whole in reporting the preliminary conclusions immediately after elections take place. The assembly also has an active Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, chaired by Belgian parliamentarian Nahima Lanjri, which encourages humane treatment of refugees and migrants alike, including respect for their rights, in accordance with international norms.  Various Special Representatives of the OSCE PA President also have human dimension portfolios, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (Human Trafficking Issues) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance).

  • Viewing Security Comprehensively

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs What does an annual human rights dialogue have to do with peace and security? To the uninitiated, the answer may not be obvious. The OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) focuses on the compliance by participating States with the Helsinki Final Act’s ten guiding principles for relations between states, including respect for human rights, and with its humanitarian commitments.  Like the OSCE’s annual reviews of the security and the economic/environmental dimensions, the HDIM is a deep dive into a specific group of issues embraced by the OSCE. Yet all three of these dimensions are inextricably intertwined. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act enshrined groundbreaking linkages between the rights of the individual and peaceful relations among states in the concept of comprehensive security. It explicitly recognized that democracy, fundamental freedoms, and the rights of persons belonging to minorities underpin regional peace and security. By signing the document, all OSCE participating States have agreed that lasting security cannot be achieved without respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions. The Potential of Comprehensive Security Soviet dissident groups were among the first to recognize the potential of the Helsinki Final Act’s then-revolutionary linkages. According to Yuri Orlov in Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir “Thaw Generation,” the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group observed that the act represented “the first international document in which the issue of human rights is discussed as a component of international peace,” empowering dissident groups to hold their own authorities to account for human rights violations by way of other governments’ assessments. American presidents have repeatedly underlined the significance of the comprehensive concept of security enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. President Ronald Reagan, returning from discussions with his Soviet counterpart in October 1986, made clear that progress on lessening of tensions and possible arms control agreements would require trust between the two sides, and that this trust was in turn predicated on the Soviet government’s record on meeting human rights commitments: “… I also made it plain, once again, that an improvement of the human condition within the Soviet Union is indispensable for an improvement in bilateral relations with the United States. For a government that will break faith with its own people cannot be trusted to keep faith with foreign powers.” President George H.W. Bush in 1992 underlined that in the act, “participating States recognized respect for human rights as an ‘essential factor’ for the attainment of peace, justice and cooperation among nations.” President Barack Obama in 2015 hailed the act’s central conviction that “the security of states is inextricably linked to the security of their citizens’ rights.” The concept of comprehensive security also lay behind the establishment of institutions such as the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is tasked by the participating States with helping governments to meet their commitments to human rights and democracy. ODIHR describes its mission as “a cornerstone of the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security.” Similarly, OSCE field missions helping OSCE participating States to strengthen their democracy and thereby their security through the implementation of the OSCE commitments in areas ranging from minority rights to media freedom. The relevance of human rights to building and upholding both internal and international peace has also been a reoccurring theme in the work of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. For example, in June 2017  the rapporteur of the OSCE PA Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions urged OSCE “governments to prioritize commitments to protect fundamental human rights and freedoms of every individual in addressing such pressing issues as countering violent extremism.” Comprehensive Security and the Helsinki Commission The comprehensive concept of security also inspired today’s U.S. Helsinki Commission. The commission has heard on numerous occasions from serving government officials just how crucial the relevance of human rights within states is to security among states. For instance, at a Helsinki Commission hearing while serving as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip Gordon emphasized, “The OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security offers a vehicle for engagement across the political, military, economic, and human rights dimensions. ... one of the most important features of the OSCE is that it recognizes that security is not just about what happens between states or beyond borders, but what happens within them.” At the same hearing, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner underlined, “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states is an essential element of security and prosperity among states. This principle lies at the core of the OSCE. Without a vigorous Human Dimension, the Helsinki Process becomes a hollow shell.” Helsinki Commissioners consistently emphasize the linkages between the various dimensions of security in all aspects of their work, including efforts to condemn torture; defend the rights of a free press; protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in the fight against terrorism; or underline the importance of individual liberty and the rule of law as the foundations of the NATO alliance. In 2017, all Senate members of the Helsinki Commission jointly introduced a introduced a bipartisan resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and its relevance to American national security.  As Chairman Roger Wicker observed, “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty.” 

  • Condolence Letter from OSCE PA President to Helsinki Commission Leaders Following Death of Sen. John McCain

    This week, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli offered his condolences to Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) following the death of Sen. John McCain. The letter reads in part: “His departure will leave a large void in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol and in many capital cities, where so many of us appreciated his frequent visits and his staunch dedication to transatlantic co-operation … “More than anyone, he believed that a strong relationship between the U.S. and Europe is necessary to promote peace and stability across the OSCE area and throughout the world. This week, the OSCE lost a friend whose unwavering commitment to democratic principles made of him a critical voice in our transatlantic community. "Many of us remember fondly his participation in our 2012 Annual Session in Monaco, where he underlined U.S. efforts to sanction human rights offenders and when his words aligned our Assembly with a universal aspiration ‘for justice, for equal dignity under the law, and for the indominable spirit of human freedom.’” Sen. McCain was a longtime supporter of human rights and active in the OSCE region. In 2011, along with then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. McCain was an original co-sponsor of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act imposing sanctions on those responsible for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and individuals who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders in Russia. The two also co-authored the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, which gives the United States the power to deny travel and banking privileges in the United States to those who commit gross violations of human rights or acts of significant corruption. At the 2012 OSCE PA annual session, Sen. McCain spoke passionately in support of a resolution on the rule of law in Russia, which highlighted Magnitsky’s case.   “I believe that supporting the rule of law is pro-Russia. I believe that defending the innocent and punishing the guilty is pro-Russia. And ultimately, I believe the virtues that Sergei Magnitsky embodied—integrity, fair-dealing, fidelity to truth and justice, and the deepest love of country, which does not turn a blind eye to the failings of one's government, but seeks to remedy them by insisting on the highest standards—this too is pro-Russia, and I would submit that it represents the future that most Russians want for themselves and their country,” he said. “The example that Sergei set during his brief life is now inspiring more and more Russian citizens. They are standing up and speaking up in favor of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. They, like us, do not want Russia to be weak and unstable. They want it to be a successful and just and lawful country, as we do. Most of these Russian human rights and rule of law advocates support our efforts to continue Sergei's struggle for what's right, just as they are now doing … let us align this Assembly with the highest aspirations of the Russian people—Sergei's aspirations—for justice, for equal dignity under the law, and for the indomitable spirit of human freedom.”

  • U.S. Holds Historic Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

    By Nathaniel Hurd, Senior Policy Advisor From July 24-26, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback coordinated the event, which brought together governments, religious leaders, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector to “to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.” The United States invited 81 governmental delegations from “countries that have a demonstrated record for advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or that recently have taken meaningful steps to begin to do so.” Participating countries included four from North America; seven from South America; nine from Africa; 36 from Europe; nine from the Middle East; 14 from Asia; one from Oceana; and Australia. Foreign ministers led 13 delegations. Forty of the countries represented are participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE, European Union, and United Nations also took part, along with more than 400 leaders from religious groups and non-governmental organizations. Uzbekistan was the only governmental participant that had been designated by the United States as a Country of Particular Concern because of particularly severe religious freedom violations like torture, prolonged detention without charges, or clandestine detention. In remarks on the final day of the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo stated, “We applaud the steps that Uzbekistan is taking towards a more free society. We have great confidence that a degree of religious freedom greater than before will have a positive ripple effect on their country, their society, and the region as well.” Ministerial Activities During the event, survivors of religious persecution or their representatives—including Jacqueline Brunson Furnari, daughter of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson—spoke to the full assembly. Furnari testified at a November 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing, “Prisoners of the Purge: The Victims of Turkey's Failing Rule of Law,” where she pleaded for her father’s release. When Ambassador Brownback reported that Turkish authorities had transferred Pastor Brunson—who had been jailed since October 2016 on false charges of terrorism, espionage, and attempting to overthrow the state—from prison to house arrest, attendees applauded. Other speakers included representatives from Burma, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, and Sudan.    Plenary sessions focused on religious persecution around the world and opportunities to work together to advance religious freedom. The ministerial also featured panel discussions on private sector engagement, religious freedom grant opportunities at the State Department, effective advocacy on behalf of religious minorities, preventing genocide and mass atrocities, the relationship between religious freedom and economic prosperity; religious freedom in the context of countering violent extremism; legal limitations on religious freedom; religious freedom and women’s rights; the needs of displaced minorities during humanitarian emergencies; and cultural heritage. During the ministerial, the United States also presented “Statements of Concern” to the delegations regarding repression in Burma, China, and Iran; “Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression;” and “Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups.” Twenty-four participating governments joined the United States as signatories on at least one statement of concern. The governments of Armenia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Israel, Kosovo, Oman, Poland, Sri Lanka, and United Kingdom signed all three thematic statements of concern. The governments of Canada and Kosovo signed all three country-specific statements of concern. Speaking at the event, former U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, author of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, said, “Religious freedom is deeply imbedded in our own legal tradition reaching all the way back to the Magna Carta, but is also understood as a necessity for human dignity by the international community ... I stand before you today with a grave and growing sense of urgency regarding the erosion of religious freedom around the globe. All over this world, people are denied the fundamental and inalienable human right to confess and express their beliefs according to the dictates of their conscience.” Senior U.S. government officials who addressed non-governmental representatives over the ministerial included Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan; Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback; Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney; Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Mark Green; Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce; Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs Michelle Giuda; Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff Brian Hook; Senior Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Pam Pryor; and Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia Knox Thames. There were more than 15 side events during the ministerial, organized by members of Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the Religious Freedom Roundtable and its members. Topics included Christians in the Middle East, parliamentarian engagement on religious freedom, Southeast Asia, India, politicization of religious freedom and human rights, Baha’is in Iran and Yemen, China, securing U.S. government grants, Russia, parental rights, technology, security and religious freedom, violent conflict, and fragile states. Follow-Up Actions During the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo unveiled the Boldline Religious Freedom plan, the State Department’s “partnership accelerator aimed to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships…to promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” In October 2018, the first Boldline workshop will convene civil society organizations, public institutions, corporations, innovation companies, entrepreneurship support organizations, and financial institutions. On the final day of the ministerial, Vice President Mike Pence announced two new initiatives. The International Religious Freedom Fund is designed to help governments and entities that already promote freedom of religion and belief extend financial support to initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief, or provide assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. The Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program will facilitate partnerships with local faith and community leaders to rapidly deliver aid to persecuted communities, beginning with Iraq. Following the ministerial, the United States also issued the Potomac Declaration, which reaffirmed the U.S commitment to freedom of religion or belief, and proposed the Potomac Plan of Action to defend the freedom of religion or belief, confront legal limitations, advocate for equal rights and protections for all (including members of religious minorities), respond to genocide and other mass atrocities, and preserve cultural heritage.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Mark Toner to Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today welcomed Mark Toner as the commission’s new senior State Department advisor. Since the Helsinki Commission was founded in 1976, career foreign service officers have been assigned to the agency to help foster contact between Congress and the State Department, and to provide political and diplomatic counsel in areas related to the monitoring and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. “For more than 40 years, the working relationship between Congress and the executive branch has been strengthened by the presence of a senior diplomat serving at the Helsinki Commission,” said Chairman Wicker. “Mark, who brings both a high-level strategic perspective along with on-the-ground experience in the region, is uniquely qualified to continue this tradition. I am pleased to welcome him on behalf of the entire bipartisan, bicameral commission.” “Mark will be an enormous asset to the Helsinki Commission, and I look forward to working with him to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe and Central Asia,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin. “He will elevate the commission’s work to support press freedom and battle the malicious Russian disinformation efforts that have targeted not only the United States, but also many other OSCE countries.” At the Helsinki Commission, Toner will work with leadership and staff to advance U.S. national interests by promoting human rights, military security, and economic cooperation across the 57 participating States of the OSCE. “I'm honored and energized to join such a dynamic and respected team as it takes on the many challenges to democracy and human rights faced by the participating States of the OSCE,” said Toner. “I have defended freedom of speech and the right to express peaceful political dissent from the podium of the U.S. State Department and I have seen firsthand the corrosive effect of disinformation on vulnerable populations in eastern Europe in the aftermath of Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea. The Helsinki Commission's role has never been more critical or needed—whether it's standing up for human rights, defending democratic norms, or confronting efforts to spread disinformation and attack vulnerable media. I look forward to working with the commission's leadership and staff to shine a light on corruption, disinformation, and all other malign influences in the Euro-Atlantic region.” Prior to joining the Helsinki Commission, Toner, who holds the rank of Minister-Counselor, served as a Senior Faculty Advisor at the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, a part of the National Defense University. He was previously the Acting Spokesperson for the Department of State, and served twice—under two different Secretaries of State—as the Department’s Deputy Spokesperson.  Mark also was a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European Affairs, where he coordinated public diplomacy programs for Department's largest regional bureau, and in the Bureau of Public Affairs, where he oversaw all the Department's front-line media engagement operations. He has served overseas at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels, Belgium; the U.S. Consulate General in Krakow, Poland; and the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal.

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Progress toward Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan

    WASHINGTON—Following his meeting with a high-level delegation from the Government of Uzbekistan participating in this week’s first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend Secretary Pompeo for highlighting the progress made by Uzbekistan at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this week. If Uzbekistan fully follows through with essential reforms, it can be a model for other countries that have been the worst violators of religious freedom. My discussion with Foreign Minister Kamilov, Senator Safoyev, and MP Saidov highlighted how the United States can work with Uzbekistan to strengthen religious freedom, democracy, our militaries, agriculture, and ultimately security.” The Uzbek delegation to the ministerial included Abdulaziz Kamilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Sodyq Safoyev, First Deputy Chairman of the Senate; and Akmal Saidov, Member of Parliament and Head of the National Human Rights Center. The Secretary of State designated Uzbekistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” for particularly severe violations of religious freedom in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2016, and January 2018, as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. On June 1, following the release of the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, Chairman Wicker recognized the efforts made by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his government to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with its international commitments to respect religious freedom. Based on that progress, Chairman Wicker encouraged Secretary Pompeo to consider inviting Uzbekistan to participate in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. On June 11, Chairman Wicker introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.539) urging President Trump to take action against some of the worst violators of religious freedom in Europe and Central Asia. S.Res.539 emphasizes the positive steps that Uzbekistan has taken and calls for President Trump to develop a strategy to advance religious freedom in Eurasia that prioritizes supporting ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan. In July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed as part of its “Berlin Declaration” an amendment by Chairman Wicker recognizing the Government of Uzbekistan’s ongoing reforms.  

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Release of Pastor Brunson from Prison

    WASHINGTON—Following Pastor Andrew Brunson’s release from prison to house arrest by Turkish authorities today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I welcome the long overdue decision by a Turkish court today to transfer Pastor Brunson to house arrest. This first step is a humane gesture for a falsely accused man who has endured more than 650 days in a maximum security prison. I will continue to seek full justice for Pastor Brunson, which includes his acquittal and freedom to leave Turkey.” Pastor Brunson is one of several American citizens, including NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, who have been caught up in the sweeping purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Pastor Brunson spent more than year and a half in jail on national security charges. Gölge and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with similar terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks. A third consulate employee remains under house arrest on dubious charges.  Last week, the four senior members of the Helsinki Commission expressed concern about Pastor Brunson’s ongoing imprisonment. In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. A month earlier, Helsinki Commission leaders called on President Erdogan to lift the state of emergency imposed in July 2016 after the failed military coup against his government. Turkey ended its two-year-long state of emergency last week, but the Grand National Assembly earlier today approved legislation that effectively enshrines many of President Erdogan’s controversial emergency decrees. Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders also urged President Trump to seek guarantees that U.S. citizens jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated and receive full consular assistance.

  • Maine native honored that Russia wants to interrogate him

    A Maine native is on the list of U.S. officials that Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’d like his prosecutors to interrogate. Old Town native and former U.S. House committee staffer Kyle Parker helped draft sanctions against Russians suspected of human rights violations. Parker tweeted Tuesday he was “honored” to make Putin’s list. Congress passed 2012 sanctions following Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky’s death in prison after exposing a tax fraud scheme involving Russian officials. The White House Thursday said Trump “disagrees” with Putin’s offer to allow U.S. questioning of 12 Russians who have been indicted for election interference. Putin in exchange wanted Russian interviews with the former U.S. ambassador to Russia and other Americans the Kremlin accuses of unspecified crimes. Trump initially had described the idea as an “incredible offer.”

  • What’s really behind Putin’s obsession with the Magnitsky Act

    Standing by President Trump’s side in Helsinki for their first bilateral summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin made what Trump described as an “incredible” offer: He would help U.S. investigators gain access to Russian intelligence officers indicted for the 2016 election hacking, on one small condition. “We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate and they would question [U.S.] officials … who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” Putin said, producing the name to indicate what actions he had in mind: “Mr. Browder.” Bill Browder, an American-born financier, came to Russia in the 1990s. The grandson of a former general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Browder by his own admission wanted to become “the biggest capitalist in Russia.” He succeeded and was for a decade the country’s largest portfolio foreign investor. Whatever the sins of Russia’s freewheeling capitalism, Browder’s real crime in the eyes of the Kremlin came later, after he had been expelled from Russia in 2005. In 2008, his Moscow lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a tax scam involving government officials that defrauded Russian taxpayers of $230 million. He did what any law-abiding citizen would, reporting the crime to the relevant authorities. In return, he was arrested and held in detention without trial for almost a year. He was beaten and died on Nov. 16, 2009, at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison under mysterious circumstances. Officials involved in his case received awards and promotions. In a chilling act worthy of Kafka, the only trial held in the Magnitsky case was a posthumous sentencing of himself — the only trial against a dead man in the history of Russia. It was then that Browder turned from investment to full-time advocacy, traveling the world to persuade one Western parliament after another to pass a measure that was as groundbreaking as it would appear obvious: a law, commemoratively named the Magnitsky Act, that bars individuals (from Russia and elsewhere) who are complicit in human rights abuses and corruption from traveling to the West, owning assets in the West and using the financial system of the West. Boris Nemtsov, then Russia’s opposition leader (who played a key role in convincing Congress to pass the law in 2012), called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign Parliament.” It was the smartest approach to sanctions. It avoided the mistake of targeting Russian citizens at large for the actions of a small corrupt clique in the Kremlin and placed responsibility directly where it is due. It was also the most effective approach. The people who are in charge of Russia today like to pose as patriots, but in reality, they care little about the country. They view it merely as a looting ground, where they can amass personal fortunes at the expense of Russian taxpayers and then transfer those fortunes to the West. In one of his anti-corruption reports, Nemtsov detailed the unexplained riches attained by Putin’s personal friends such as Gennady Timchenko, Yuri Kovalchuk and the Rotenberg brothers, noting that they are likely “no more that the nominal owners … and the real ultimate beneficiary is Putin himself.” Similar suspicions were voiced after the publication of the 2016 Panama Papers, which showed a $2 billion offshore trail leading to another close Putin friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin. Some of the funds in his accounts were linked with money from the tax fraud scheme uncovered by Magnitsky. Volumes of research, hours of expert testimony and countless policy recommendations have been dedicated to finding effective Western approaches to Putin’s regime. The clearest and the most convincing answer was provided, time and again, by the Putin regime itself. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin tasked his foreign ministry with trying to stop; it was the Magnitsky Act that was openly tied to the ban on child adoptions; it was the Magnitsky Act that was the subject of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting attended by a Kremlin-linked lawyer; it is advocating for the Magnitsky Act that may soon land any Russian citizen in prison. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin named as the biggest threat to his regime as he stood by Trump’s side in Helsinki. After the Trump-Putin meeting, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office released the names of U.S. citizens it wants to question as supposed associates of Browder. The list leaves no doubt as to the nature of the “crime.” It includes Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia policy at the Obama White House and later U.S. Ambassador in Moscow who oversaw the “compiling of memos to the State Department … on the investigation in the Magnitsky case.” It includes David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, who, as president of Freedom House between 2010 and 2014, was one of the most effective advocates for the Magnitsky Act. Perhaps most tellingly, it includes Kyle Parker, now chief of staff at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, who, as the lead Russia staffer at the commission, wrote the bill that subsequently became the Magnitsky Act. Vladimir Putin has left no doubt: The biggest threat to his regime is the Magnitsky Act, which stops its beneficiaries from doing what has long become their raison d’être — stealing in Russia and spending in the West. It is time for more Western nations to adopt this law — and for the six countries that already have it to implement it with vigor and resolve.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Troubled by Continued Imprisonment of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s ruling by a Turkish court that U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson will remain jailed pending his next trial date in October, the four senior members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission—Helsinki Chairman Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Ranking Commissioner Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20)—released the following statements: “The cruelty of today’s decision is astonishing,” said Chairman Wicker. “By extending Pastor Brunson’s indefinite detention and setting his next trial date for mid-October, the Turkish government has declared its intention to keep this innocent man in jail past the two-year anniversary of his arrest without conviction or any credible evidence against him. There is no room in NATO for hostage-taking. Pastor Brunson should be freed immediately.” “Over the past 18 months, it has become clear that President Erdogan has the ability to end this injustice, but he refuses to do so,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “President Erdogan has put Pastor Brunson and his family through 649 days of enormous suffering. Pastor Brunson must be released immediately, otherwise this cruel abuse of a U.S. citizen should have serious consequences for our country’s relationship with the Turkish government.”   “I remain deeply concerned that Mr. Brunson remains in prison in Turkey,” said Sen. Cardin. “Today’s action represents yet another miscarriage of justice in this case. The Turkish government must drop its spurious charges and release Mr. Brunson immediately.” “Turkey’s persecution of Pastor Brunson has been characterized by conspiratorial charges, anonymous witnesses, and political agendas, and bears no resemblance to a credible judicial process,” said Rep. Hastings. “Even as the Turkish government prepares to lift its nearly two-year state of emergency, we should not be fooled into thinking that the rule of law is returning to Turkey. Pastor Brunson’s wrongful imprisonment proves that nothing is likely to change.” Pastor Brunson is one of several American citizens, including NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, who have been caught up in the sweeping purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Despite the efforts of the President of the United States, among many others, he has spent more than a year in jail on national security charges. Gölge and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with similar terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks. A third consulate employee remains under house arrest on dubious charges.   In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. A month earlier, Helsinki Commission leaders called on President Erdogan to lift the state of emergency imposed in July 2016 after the failed military coup against his government. The Turkish government has announced it will not seek to extend emergency rule when it expires tomorrow, but draft legislation introduced by Erdogan’s government would enshrine many of his controversial emergency decrees. Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders also urged President Trump to seek guarantees that U.S. citizens jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated and receive full consular assistance.

  • The Russian Occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

    August 2018 marks 10 years of Russian occupation of approximately 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized sovereign territory. The Russian occupation, and the ensuing recognition by Moscow of the “independence” of South Ossetia (referred to in Georgia as the Tskhinvali region) and Abkhazia, represent material breaches of international law and an active disregard for the Charter of the United Nations, and the founding principles of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) embodied in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE commitments. This report offers a brief overview of the history of the outbreak of war in August 2008; the evolution of the unresolved conflict since that time; and an overview of the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s efforts to advance a resolution and restore Georgia’s territorial integrity. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor and Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor

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